Five Top Tips for Managing Deadlines

October is a month of several deadlines. The rapid e-books on Researching in the Age of COVID-19 that I’m co-editing with Su-ming Khoo are being published on Friday 23rd, and I have to draft a post for the LSE Impact Blog to be published on that date. The online launch for the Insider Guides to Success in Academia series I’m co-editing with Pat Thomson is on Thursday 28th, and I have a bunch of preparation to do beforehand. The end of the month is the deadline for four draft chapters of a new book I’m writing for SAGE, and for the draft MS of a book I’m co-editing with Su-ming Khoo for Policy Press. I have to draft the conclusion for that book by then. And those are just the publishing deadlines; I have client deadlines too, and this blog needs writing every week, and my accounts will be due soon. The deadline pressure seems never-ending.

People have different attitudes to deadlines. Some need the pressure of a deadline to do good work. Others find the stress of an approaching deadline means their work deteriorates, so they need to plan ahead. Some are continually surprised by deadlines; others ignore them. The writer Douglas Adams famously said, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” We often talk in terms of meeting deadlines, but that’s not the whole story. I think we need to learn to manage our deadlines. Here are my five top tips for deadline management.

  1. Don’t let your deadlines take you by surprise

I’m sure we’ve all had colleagues who have said things like, “You mean this week?”, and caused much eye-rolling irritation. Everyone needs a system to help us stay aware of our deadlines. I use lists; a friend uses Post-Its stuck around her computer monitor; another friend uses a big wall-mounted year planner. It doesn’t matter what system you use, what matters is that it works for you

2. Do sweat the small stuff

Paying attention to detail really helps when you’re managing deadlines. Some people really struggle with details, such as ‘big picture’ thinkers and some neurodiverse people. If you find it really difficult to pay attention to detail, try to work with others who have these skills, or enlist the support of a friend who can help you to focus. If you find it a bit tricky, whether because you find it boring or because you’ve never really honed the skills, I recommend working to develop your ability to pay attention to detail. The time invested will pay dividends.

3. Manage your time well

Time management helps with deadline management. I raise my head from my immediate tasks to check on my deadlines and review my progress at least once a week, usually late on a Friday or early on a Monday. Sometimes more often if I feel the need. At particularly busy times I might do this daily; it is particularly helpful at times when deadlines and priorities are, or may be, changing. Another important component of time management is to be realistic about what you can get done in the time available. I worked with one person who was frequently astonished by the need to spend time on things like childcare and teaching preparation – which, as they were a parent and a teacher, seemed quite odd to me. A third component of time management is to say ‘no’ when necessary. I’ll be saying ‘no’ to anything else with an October deadline. ‘Too many deadlines already’ is a very good reason for saying ‘no’.

4. Communicate if you have a problem

If you think you’re not going to meet a deadline, tell the people who need to know. Most people are forgiving and flexible, particularly if you have an unforeseen problem, sometimes even if it’s simply because the work was more complicated than you had expected. The earlier you can let them know, the easier it is for them to be forgiving and flexible. (Making a habit of missing deadlines has the opposite effect. Therefore I don’t advise this as a regular practice, but it’s useful when needed.) So don’t procrastinate here, not least because that will only add to your stress levels.

5. Practise self-care

Looking after ourselves should always be a priority. If we are well cared for, we are better able to manage our deadlines. And managing deadlines is a form of self-care in its own right, because really the whole point of deadline management is to manage the stress and pressure deadlines can cause.

So those are my five top tips. Is there anything I’ve missed? If so, please let me know in the comments.

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